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Symposium 2015

Solution for New Indicators of Progress: How to Make a Difference to Policy and Politics

The Challenge

Despite growing recognition from many senior politicians and officials that progress is not just about economic growth, and that economic growth (as measured by GDP) should not be the overriding goal ...

Despite growing recognition from many senior politicians and officials that progress is not just about economic growth, and that economic growth (as measured by GDP) should not be the overriding goal of government, the day-to-day reality is that GDP growth does persist as a central focus. For example, whilst France is recognised as having lead the way in the ‘Beyond GDP’ agenda with the Stiglitz Commission arguing for a shift in focus from production to wellbeing, the French President Hollande was recently quoted as saying "I will do everything to make growth as high as possible.” This primacy of growth risks other objectives, including social and environmental goals, being sidelined. Indeed, whilst economists often say that economic growth is only a means to an end, and that that end is wellbeing, there is reason to believe that some decisions are taken which favour increasing economic growth at the expense of wellbeing.

Five Headline Indicators of National Success Based on Public Priorities

The UK government was among the first to respond to the challenge for better measurement laid down by the Stiglitz Commission (Stiglitz et al., 2009), with the announcement by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) of “Measuring National Wellbeing” program in 2010 (ONS, n.d.). It was launched by Prime Minister David Cameron with the statement that “we have got to recognize, officially, that economic growth is a means to an end. If your goal in politics is to help make a better life for people…then you’ve got to take practical steps to make sure government is properly focused on our quality of life as well as economic growth, and that is what we are trying to do” (UK Government, 2010). But our view is that the program has not succeeded in bringing this “proper focus” to government. While it has produced and collated a wealth of useful data, its indicators have not shifted the priorities of mainstream economic and social policy-making, which remains focused on economic growth as its overarching outcome. And it certainly has not sustained high-profile public political support: following the Prime Ministerial launch there has been a distinct lack of political speeches based on the program’s indicators. This muted impact is relatively unsurprising in light of the fact that its headline indicator set is built on ten domains and contains no fewer than 41 indicators (UK Government, n.d.). This is far too many to act as an effective tool to guide media, public, political, and, therefore, policy attention.

In our work at the New Economics Foundation we therefore set out to develop a more effective set of headline indicators for the UK, working with organizations from across British civil society and business. Our starting point was the evidence on public priorities for measuring national success from three recent consultations with the British public: the ONS’s national debate on measuring national well-being (Evans, 2011); the rankings of measurement topics by UK users of the OECD’s Better Life Index (OECD, n.d); and the public consultation carried out by Oxfam Scotland in creating their Humankind Index (Dunlop et al., 2012). In addition we reviewed the topics included in thirteen high-profile headline indicator initiatives. We then used a set of criteria for effective headline indicators, based on the latest research in this field (including the EU-FP7-funded BRAINPOoL project, Whitby et al., 2014), to select both broad indicator topics and specific headline indicators. In this way, we developed our proposal for a set of five headline indicators of national success for the UK, of: decently paid, secure employment; subjective well-being; environmental impact; economic inequality; and quality of health provision and outcomes. We will be publishing the full proposal at the end of October 2015, with a call on the ONS to adopt the five headline indicators of national success as the top layer of indicators within its “measuring national well-being” set and to give them highest prominence within its schedule of data releases (Jeffrey and Michaelson, in press).

Our view is that the adoption of these five headline indicators will achieve a far better alignment between the issues treated as priorities in UK policy-making, and the things that matter most to the British public. For this to happen, however, the indicators will need to capture public, media and political attention, creating a demand for a focus on the outcomes they represent to which policy-makers will be required to respond. The indicator set has been explicitly designed to succeed in capturing this attention where others have failed, by being clear, easy to communicate and memorable. That is why we have included five, clear, meaningful and publicly important indicators, rather than a single opaque overall index which is hard to interpret, or a larger number of indicators which fail to hold public attention. Our criterion to select no more than five indicators was based on the evidence that there are “severe limits in how much can be kept in mind at once” and that this is between three and five items (Cowan, 2010).

For our proposal to be successful, we will need to make the case that activity to date on headline measurement in the UK has not yet succeeded in genuinely shifting policy priorities, as—given the UK’s early action in responding to the Stiglitz Commission—it may be seen to be an issue which does not require further concerted action. To do this, we are seeking support for the proposal from a broad range of organizations across British society, including charities, NGOs, campaigning organizations as well as businesses. This, we believe, will demonstrate the widespread demand for better indicators of national success. Of course, the proposal also stands a much better chance of succeeding if it influences thinking in other countries. While this would require each country to develop indicators based on the priorities of its own citizens, international coordination on the idea of implementing a small set of headline indicators of national success is likely to be a crucial element in the success of the proposal. Therefore, active support of the idea from civil society and business organizations in countries beyond the UK, focused on developing a context-specific set of indicators for each country, will be an important step in making this proposal a reality.

References

Cowan. N. (2010). The Magical Mystery Four: How is Working Memory Capacity Limited, and Why? Current Directions in Psychological Science 19: 51–57.

Dunlop, S., K. Swales, and K. Trebeck (2012). Oxfam Humankind Index.The new measure of Scotland’s prosperity. Oxford: Oxfam GB.

Evans, J. (2011). Findings from the National Well-being Debate. London: Office for National Statistics.

Jeffrey, K., and J. Michaelson (in press). Measuring What Matters: Five headline indicators of national success. London: New Economics Foundation.

OECD (n.d.). Data on UK responses to the OECD Better Life Index supplied by the OECD.

ONS. (n.d.). Measuring National Well-being [webpage]. <http://www.ons.gov.uk/ons/guide-method/user-guidance/well-being/index.html>

Stiglitz, J.E., A. Sen, and J.-P. Fitoussi (2009). Report by the Commission on the Measurement of Economic Performance and Social Progress. <http://www.stat.si/doc/drzstat/Stiglitz%20report.pdf>

UK Government (2010). PM speech on wellbeing, 25 November 2010. <https://www.gov.uk/government/speeches/pm-speech-on-wellbeing>

UK Government. (n.d.) Measures of national wellbeing. <http://www.neighbourhood.statistics.gov.uk/HTMLDocs/dvc146/wrapper.html>

Whitby, A., et al. (2014). BRAINPOoL Project Final Report: Beyond GDP—From Measurement to Politics and Policy. BRAINPOoL deliverable 5.2, A collaborative programme funded by the European Union’s Seventh Programme for research, technological development and demonstration under grant agreement No. 283024.

World Future Council (2014). <http://www.worldfuturecouncil.org/fileadmin/user_upload/Future_Justice/BRAINPOoL_Project_Final_Report.pdf>

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